The new, revised edition of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice

The new, revised edition of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice offers students an expository composition textbook that prepares them for rich, deep, and insightful college writing while encouraging them to develop and celebrate their own unique voices. Request a sample.

Ready to Go for the 34th Time

Here I am, ready to go, in my first year of teaching (1981).

Tomorrow morning I begin my thirty-fourth and final year as a public school teacher. I’m enthusiastic, positive, focused, and ready to go. I’m not tired or burned out. Most days I’m at the top of my game, looking for new challenges, opportunities, and possibilities.

As in other years, I have these two goals for myself that can only be accomplished one student at a time:

1. Each student should have a quality literacy experience each day. That experience can take many different forms, but it needs to be excellent, and it’s my job to make it excellent.

2. Readers and writers think with certain habits and patterns. Students who are developing as lifelong readers and writers need practice forming and maintaining those behaviors and ways of thinking. That’s my other goal—laying the groundwork and providing the practice and feedback that will deepen those habits for each student.

But this year is a little different because it’s the last go-round at the school where I’ve worked for the past 27 years. With that in mind, I have three other goals.

Enjoy. I have loved this job. Every day I’m privileged to write, read, talk, and think about writing and reading and talking and thinking with exciting young people at the most interesting point of their young lives. The challenge of helping them find ways to authentically integrate literacy into their developing lives is always invigorating. I work alongside other dedicated professionals, and I communicate daily with teachers from around the world who are also energetically involved in the same work. This is a wonderful, wonderful way to earn a living, but sometimes I lose sight of that. This year the focus is on enjoying my job.

Here/Now. Smart teachers always have an eye on how they can adapt and improve their lessons, materials, and approaches for the future. I have no idea what I’ll be doing a year from now, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be using the same lessons, materials, and approaches that I’ve crafted over the last few decades. “How can I do this better?” is still a valid question, but “How should I do this next year?” is no longer a valid question for me. So, the attention will be on what I can do right now to make the most of each moment for each student I’m with. Will there be frustrations? Sure. We have some pretty hairy mandates to live through this year. They will need to be thrown overboard or at least tweaked at some point in the future. I won’t be a part of the revamping, so I’m not going to spend much time thinking about it. I still care about the school I’ve called home all these years, but those who have a direct stake in the aftermath should have the leading voices in shaping its future. I’ll be focusing on the here and now when I’m at school.

Next year. In the coming months, I need to spend time clarifying my own thinking about what to do after retiring from this job. Although I have some ideas, I need to figure out how to make them into realistic plans. Right now, I’d kind of like to work with middle schoolers, and I have the certification to do that. I’m also passionate about designing and delivering professional development for teachers at all stages of their careers, especially when it comes to literacy. I know exactly how to help schools discover their literacy programming needs and how to help them achieve their literacy goals. Can I make that passion and expertise into a viable job? I don’t know. I also have some writing projects in various stages of completion. To be honest, there are days when I just want to be finished with education. I’ve been a truck stop cook, cemetery maintenance worker, factory line worker, and a pizza maker. I’ve worked on road crews, farms, and construction sites. Some days I miss that kind of work, but I know I’m at my best and doing the most good when I’m active in a school.

I hope all you teachers reading this have your best year ever. We do noble work, and we have huge responsibilities. Help each other.

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What I Learned in Summer School

I just finished my last session of summer school, ever. (We are not allowed to work in a public school for sixty days after retirement. I retire in June, 2014. After that, it’s unlikely that I would return for summer school.) I’ve taught summer school for many years. Why? Three reasons: (1.) The summer school kids are different from my regular school-year kids, and they sharpen my skills as an educator; (2.) I know I’m making a difference for these struggling students in how they view their own literacy skills as well as school in general; and (3.) the pay is decent.

My summer school classes were a pretty rough bunch. We gathered each morning at 7:30 a.m., about twenty students, each of whom had failed sophomore English at least once. The record was five times, a record tied by numerous students over the years. We were together until noon. Four-and-a-half hours is a long stretch.

I like these kids. They are energetic, after they wake up, and they have good hearts. School and life have not been easy for most of them, but they have also done a good job of making it hard on themselves. Some of them have parents in prison. Some of them are parents themselves. Many of them have very difficult home lives for a variety of reasons. On the first day, I asked each student to tell everyone why he or she failed. The most common answer was a variation of “I didn’t get along with the teacher.” The second most common answer was “I didn’t do any work.” Other students also admitted that laziness and poor attendance contributed to their failures.

When I asked what they wanted out of summer school English, two-thirds of these students said they simply want to pass. The others said they want an A or a B, although Dean said he wanted to “expand [his] knowledge of the English language.”

I had no interest in spending long days with this crew and ending up with a bunch of repeat failures. My goal was to help them get what they wanted, and maybe a little more. If we can believe the reasons they gave for failing Sophomore English, and I have no reason to doubt them, their failures had very little to do with literacy. Many of them are struggling readers and writers, but they are not F-level readers and writers, whatever that might be. Their failures were largely due to behavioral choices and other obstacles, many of them self-imposed.

So, what if we remove the obstacles? Will they make better choices? Will they learn more if they are not embroiled in dramas that have nothing to do with their literacy skills? Those questions guided me each day with these students.

The attendance obstacle is automatically removed. If they are absent three times, they are dropped from summer school. A tardy counts as half an absence. If they are not in class when the bell rings or when the fifteen-minute break is over, they are docked half an absence. Absences are the most difficult obstacle for me to remove because they are set in motion an hour or so before the school day begins. I offer to call them in the morning, but none of them took me up on it. One girl missed the bus, and her mother made her walk to school across town in the rain. She was late, but she was there. Roughly one-third of the students registered for my class each semester was dropped due to attendance issues.

After they arrived, I dismantled every obstacle I could. I provided paper, pens, and pencils for those who didn’t have them. (One student ate most of a Bic pen every day. At the end of each day I would find by his desk a completely gnawed pen, the cap chewed into oblivion, the barrel crunched and cracked. I frequently saw him with a pen in his mouth, but I never saw him going after it with such vengeance; yet, at the end of each day there was a mangled pen by his desk.) I freely admit that I was not teaching them maturity, responsibility, or any other efficacy components by providing them with school supplies, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to show them that they are smart enough to pass if they make better choices.

Many students failed because they didn’t do homework, so I removed the homework obstacle. All work was done in class during the school day. If students were absent, all work was made up in class on the day they returned. By the end of each semester, out of dozens of grades for these students, I had fewer than ten zeroes. When they could do their work in class, they did their work. When it’s homework, they don’t do it.

What about the teacher conflict obstacle? I’m pretty easy to get along with, but I have clear behavioral expectations. When those boundaries are crossed, it gets ugly fast. Two lads caused problems on the first day, and we had “clarification sessions” in the hallway about their behavior. Two days later, one of them started screwing around again, saying he “needs a lap dance,” “can’t stand being confined,” and “needs a bitch to slap.” I sent him to the principal. The principal told the student he had one more chance to shape up. I called home and told his mother exactly what had happened. The student’s mother was shocked but more than supportive of our discipline attempts, and the next day this young man respectfully asked if he could talk to me privately. We stepped into a seminar room where he tearfully promised that he would be “totally chill” and asked me to please not call his mother again. His behavior was fine from that day forward.

What about the laziness obstacle? In my mind, “lazy” is synonymous with “unmotivated,” so I did my best to motivate them. I gave these students frequent feedback. I provided a report card every other day. They got their un-homework back very quickly so they could see what they were doing right and wrong. I wrote encouraging, positive comments in their journals. I gave them choices in how they could do many of their assignments. They were still a little sleepy first thing in the morning, but I don’t see that as laziness. I see that as sleepiness. Laziness is an obstacle that disappeared.

Did they learn anything? Everyone passed. Each semester I had one student earn a D. The most common grade was A. Some of this grade inflation is due to a mandated change in how we figure grades that made it almost impossible to fail if a student did even a minimum of work. One student passed with a 19.62% based on the new grading system. Should she have failed? I think it’s a moot point. If she had been closer to failing, even with that dismal percentage, I would have found a way to get her to a passing level. The new grading system resulted in much higher grades, but the students also demonstrated that they learned some things about reading, writing, and thinking.

These students maybe didn’t do everything right, but they accomplished more than they did in the regular school year, and they saw some positive academic results. Yes, I’d like to see them bring their own paper and pencils to class. I’d like to see them successfully complete homework. I’d like to see them come to school regularly without the threat of being dropped. Those are challenges for another time. The challenge for summer school was to show these students that they could do it if they try just a little bit harder.

An interesting realization for me with these students had to do with the physical considerations of writing. They responded well to suggestions with physical aspects. For example, one day Calvin said, “I know I have more to say about this, but I just can’t get the words out.” I could tell he was being sincere. I looked at him, over six feet tall, scrunched in a hard plastic chair with a flip-up, auditorium-style desktop, and said, “Why don’t you try standing up to write for a while. Just go over there and lean on the wall and see what happens.” Calvin unfolded himself, went to the wall, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Louie enjoyed cranking out words but seemed to have no conception of a sentence. His words just went for miles and miles with no periods in sight. After a day or two of this, I asked him, “How many sentences would you say this is?” Louie said, “I don’t know,” and he started counting the lines on the page. He equated a line of writing across the page with a sentence. I pointed out to him that they were not the same thing, but he didn’t quite make the conversion. He knew that sentences had periods at the end, but he didn’t know where they should go. His words just flowed out, and he didn’t think much about punctuation. My suggestion to Louie was one I’d used before: “Make your periods really big. Like crazy big. It will look kind of funny at first, but it will help you think about where sentences end.” So Louie started making his periods really big. His writing had a unique look, but in order to physically insert those big periods, Louie had to say to himself, “I think this is where a sentence ends,” a new line of thought for Louie. Some of those huge dots still popped up in fairly random places, but as the days went by, Louie’s sentence sense improved, thanks to gigantic periods.

The other example of using physical senses to help students write better was a simple suggestion to “Fill the page.” Just keep going. They were required to write at least three pages a day. They could tell simply by looking at their paper whether or not they were going to get full credit: If the third page was full, 100%. Some students wrote more, and I challenged them to try to fill whatever page they were on.

The biggest realization for me with these students—and it’s an epiphany that I believe applies to every student and every classroom—is that we must meet them where they are. We must deal with the students in front of us in whatever shape they arrive. We can wish they were more accomplished, better behaved, or more studious, but our decisions and actions need to be based on where they are now.

If faced with a class of students—or even one student—for whom the standard way of doing things didn’t work, we have a responsibility to make changes. We don’t need to coddle each student’s every whim, but it’s also kind of crazy to repeat the circumstances that will lead to predictable failure. (Lowering the grading scale is not my favorite way of avoiding failure, but I had no choice in that one.)

Sincere empathy is motivational. A taste of success is motivational. Choice is motivational. Personal feedback is motivational. And when our students are motivated, they will learn.

On the last day of summer school, we had a little celebration party for Claudio who had earned his diploma after failing sophomore English five times. As we enjoyed bagels and juice, I told these kids to get a D if they have to, but don’t fail any more. Audrey said, “If regular school was like summer school, I would never fail.” Well then, maybe regular school should be more like summer school in some ways.

(Some material from this post appeared in an earlier blog series on English Companion Ning.)

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Helping the GLEE Kids “Discover Their Voices”!

What writing textbook do the GLEE kids use at William McKiinley High School? Looks like it’s the original edition of EXPOSITORY COMPOSITION: DISCOVERING YOUR VOICE from EMC Publishing! Good choice, McKinley High! (Now you need the new edition!)

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“Does This Need a Title?”: Helping Students Generate Titles

baby-names-268x300Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”

But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?

I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable to posts on my personal blog just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)

Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)

Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems
Lilacs and TwitterArt
Schools, WAR, and Froggy DeMaestri

Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.

As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.

The Good Start: Twelve Targets for New Teachers
Today’s PLC Meeting: What Have We Learned?
Writers Week: 17 Years of “The Best Week Ever”
Stephen King: An Appreciation

Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.

Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)

Dramatic or Funny Image:
Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.

Extenuating Circumstances
The Brave Faces
Catch More Fish

Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!

Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals
Brit Lit: Reading, Writing, and Relevance
Trust Teachers

Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
– Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
– Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
– Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.

This is cross-posted, in slightly different form, on What’s Not Wrong?

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When Young Writers Get “Worse”

oopsIn most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.

Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.

Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.

The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.

All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.

Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.

Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are welcome and appreciated!

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Revision is not a re-take.

“Can I re-take your test?” This is a question teachers at our school are currently considering. Should we allow students to re-take tests and quizzes so that they can demonstrate more learning and receive higher grades? I understand the plusses and minuses of these practices. Lately though, I’ve been hearing writing teachers, at our school and elsewhere, lump together re-taking tests and revising writing. Regardless of how we want to think about allowing (or even encouraging) students to re-take tests, writing teachers must insist that revisions are very different from re-taking tests. Revision is not a re-take.

When students re-take tests, they have additional opportunities to show that they have learned more. Most schools allowing test re-takes require that students show proof that they have somehow prepared for the re-take by conferring with the teacher, visiting a tutoring center, or doing extra homework problems. Theoretically, these additional experiences instill more knowledge in students’ brains, and the test re-take will generate a higher grade based on that learning. OK fine.

Revising a writing piece is a very different process. When we come back to a piece of writing, we are not seeking to show more knowledge; we are exploring how to improve our communication and enhance the way we affect our audience. When we revise, we are clarifying our own thoughts and seeking the best ways to frame them for others.

Although schools sometimes teach test-taking skills, these “skills” are not real-world tools. They are artificial, academic game strategies. Learning to re-take tests is an even more dubious expenditure of intellectual energy.

But learning to revise is an end in itself and a valuable life skill. The act of “re-visioning” means we see our writing (and possibly ourselves) in new ways, either because of feedback from other readers or simply because some time passes after the original drafting. As students learn to revise, they are engaging in acts of re-creation. Sometimes revision is an artistic process; sometimes it’s a rhetorical process. Sometimes it’s both, but it’s always a more sophisticated process than more thoroughly learning static content in order to re-take a test.

Writing teachers play an important role in helping students develop these revision abilities. As we help students see their own words through the eyes of someone else, we are deepening the ways they use words to express their perceptions. As Penny Kittle says in Write Beside Them, “I remember what my job is—not to produce a bunch of products but to help my students write their way to clarity.”

In order to revise effectively, students need to be encouraged to try again, to look for new and better ways to express particular ideas. If we simply say, “Too bad. You could have done all that the first time,” we are denying not just an academic opportunity but an opportunity for actual intellectual growth.

Revision is about growth. Revision is not about points, and it’s not about grades, although I understand that sometimes it needs to be converted into those kinds of systems. Regardless of what we think about re-taking tests, when students say, “Can I re-write this?” the answer should be “Yes.” Revision is not a re-take.

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Zapping Apathy with Presidential Debates

Students experience a presidential campaign only one time during their high school years. Although politics might seem more like the domain of our Social Studies colleagues, campaigns provide plenty to talk about in English/Language Arts classes too. What better way to focus on campaign rhetoric and persuasive techniques than through the presidential debate series? Students frequently assume the debates will be older guys in suits talking about boring stuff. To a certain extent, that assumption is correct. But the debates are inherently adversarial, and conflict of this kind can be interesting if students learn to zero in on the drama. Here are the clips I like to show in class to provide students with some context for the current round of presidential debates, along with some background to share.

This 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate set the template for everything that came after. Former Vice-President Richard Nixon looks like he’s ready to pass out; he was actually a little under the weather. You can see Nixon mop his upper lip at 2:10. Senator John Kennedy, on the other hand, looks cool and confident. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on those new-fangled televisions were wowed by Kennedy.

In 1976, President Ford had a complete brain fart in his debate with Jimmy Carter as he claimed that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. 21st century students might need some help with the context on this one.

Four years later, President Jimmy Carter was laid out by former California governor Ronald Reagan with just four words. The ultra-serious Carter could not deflect Reagan’s folksy “There you go again.”

Flash forward four more years to 1984, and President Reagan—the oldest man to serve as president—was questioned about whether his age (73) was an issue. His opponent, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, then age 56, could do nothing but laugh at Reagan’s well-played response.

The best debate moment of the 1988 campaign came during the vice-presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the running mate of Democrat Michael Dukakis, and Senator Dan Quayle, the running mate of then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush. Senator Quayle, then 39 years old, had been deflecting concerns about his age by saying that he was about the same age as John Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency. Senator Bentsen, John Kennedy’s senate colleague in the 1950s, didn’t take too well to that comparison.

This 1992 clip is more of a study in style than substance. You can see President Bush check his watch at the beginning of this clip. Then a questioner tries to get President George H. W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, (and Texas billionaire Ross Perot) to describe the effects of the recession. Bush fumbles it; Clinton nails it.

When Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush debated in 2000, we saw two of the most unappealing candidates ever try to outsmart-aleck each other. If all you ever knew about these candidates was what you saw here, who would you vote for?

On the day after a debate, be sure to debrief. Ask students about their perceptions. Resist the urge to impose your own views. Let them talk, question, and learn from each other. Help your students find the balance between the seriousness of the issues facing our country and the fascinating fun inherent in a campaign.

More clips are here from our friends at C-SPAN. A pretty decent scorecard graphic organizer is here, also from C-SPAN.

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6-Word Memoirs with Wordle

To fully maximize this community-building activity, you will need Internet access to Youtube and Wordle on a computer connected to a projector. Each student will write an individual six-word memoir after watching a couple of videos providing models. Then Wordle will form a cloud-based image synthesizing the 6-word memoirs of everyone in the class. Here is the step-by-step breakdown:

First show these two Youtube videos. It’s always a good idea to preview videos before showing them in class. The one on the top has some words and images that might not be appropriate for every clientele. The one on the bottom will be fine for most classes.

After watching these videos, students will be ready to write their own 6-words memoirs. Be sure to tell them that others will see what they write, and then provide a few minutes to write the memoirs.

Now, here’s the fun part. Fire up the computer and projector and go to Wordle and demonstrate how it works. Throw in a bunch of text from the daily newspaper, school web site, Shakespeare speech, anything. Then hit Go. Play around with the formatting tools to give students the idea that the words can be formatted in a variety of designs.

Then invite students to type in their six-word memoirs with no caps. As students type, others will see what their classmates write. The teacher will probably need to do some minor editing after everyone is finished typing to fix up misspellings or inconsistent forms of words. (Wordle works best when words are repeated in exactly the same form.) Then hit Go. A preliminary version of the Wordle will appear. Then you can play around with the formatting tools to graphically capture the essence of what the words convey. The class will know when the appropriate font, color scheme, etc. matches the essence of the words.

Although this can be an excellent warm-up activity for many writing purposes, I’ve used it successfully with students preparing to write college admission essays.

Feel free to post your comments, questions, and successes. Thanks.

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Zapping Apathy with College Application Essays

If you want to see college-bound upper-grade students take a writing assignment seriously, help them with their college application essays! Writing college essays as a class assignment provides an authentic audience, extreme personal relevance, and an opportunity for introspection—in other words, all the makings of a meaningful writing experience. Students appreciate the advice and guidance, not to mention receiving academic credit for something they would otherwise be doing on their own.

Without guidance, many students approach college essays in a collaborative fashion, which isn’t a particularly good idea when they’re trying to set themselves apart from other applicants. They ask their friends, “What are you writing about?” Then the pressures of conformity set in, and they end up writing formulaic, predictable essays that echo themes and even the events discussed in the admission essays of their pals.

Although well-intentioned, parents are also not always the best advisers when it comes to these essays. It’s completely understandable, but parents tend to see these essays as the time to talk about the activities that they have been “sponsoring” since childhood: “I paid for all those years of ballet/riding/skating lessons, and you are going to by golly write about them!” Those activities might be good topics for the college essay, but it’s not automatic.

The first step in teaching college application essays is to focus on the concept of audience. Emphasize to your students that their essays need to be unique. Help them see college admission officers as actual human beings who might be reading their essay as the 49th file of the day, and the last one before lunch. How can they write engagingly with this audience in mind? This video From The College of William and Mary can be useful to help students shift their thinking about who will be reading their essays.

Many students do not feel like their lives have been exciting enough to generate a unique college application essay. Pshaw! One student told me, “My suburban life has been nothing but boring. I was smuggled out of Poland as a baby and nothing exciting has happened since!” Needless to say, she ended up writing a dramatic and important college essay.

I help students zero in on a unique, personal topic by asking them to consider their lives’ most meaningful moments and the broad themes of their lives’ narrative. For the meaningful moments, students can simply draw a line with an arrow on both ends to form a timeline. Then they add the dates and events that they consider formative. Be sure to suggest that some important events may have occurred before they were born. For example, events that affected their parents may have set in motion important influences on individual students. For the broader themes, I suggest playing around with 6-word memoirs. I wrote about that in a previous blog post.

After students have considered their lives from these macro and micro perspectives, it’s a good idea to share some successful models from previous students. Some excellent examples are available in Chapter 11 of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). If you haven’t already started a collection from your previous classes, be sure to start this year! These models can show students various ways of opening, organizing, and presenting college essays.

As students set off to create their individual, unique, personal college essays, please be sure they have these big ideas in mind:
• Use the essay as the opportunity to spotlight something that isn’t obvious from the other materials in a student’s application file.
• Show instead of tell, especially when writing about emotions. Describe the event and situations, but don’t tell readers how the writer felt. Show details, and the emotional impact will follow.
• Write in a sincere voice—not too understated and definitely not arrogant.
• The essay should reveal how the writer’s heart and mind work.

You may ask students to bring in drafts of their essays for peer review. This is a good idea, but consider asking students to practice thinking about their audience by looking at each other’s drafts through the eyes of a college admissions officer: Based on the essay, do you have a favorable opinion of the candidate? Why or why not? What concerns you about this candidate? Questions like these can then be followed by talking about the details that were most compelling, and any unclear sentences or phrases. As always, the writer should consider this feedback open-mindedly, but each writer has the right to accept or reject any suggestions as they craft subsequent drafts.

Students writing college application essays are frequently concerned about word count. Some colleges request essays of 250, 300, or 500 words. Here’s my advice to students about wrestling with word count: Write it big. Then revise to fit the word count. Students will frequently write a brief draft, check the word count, then add a little more, gradually sneaking up on the word count. This tends to result in weak, tentative writing.

If, on the other hand, a student writes the essay boldly, thoroughly describing everything and showing how his heart and mind works, without too much regard for length, the result is likely to be stronger writing with better verbs and description. Of course, it will be too long, but we can help with that!

Most writers have a hard time discarding words that they have labored to bring into existence. Students are no different. During this past week I’ve said to at least a dozen students, “I’m going to do some surgery here. I’m not making your writing better; I’m making it shorter.” They understand.

When editing student writing for word count, look for repeated ideas, extra adjectives, passages that can be easily lifted without affecting the overall structure or message, and any use of very or really. (I tell students that if they are using very or really, the next word probably needs to be stronger.)

For example, here is Jenny D.’s first draft that came in a little too long:

Out of all my extracurricular activities and clubs, Peer Ministry through my church has given me the greatest sense of fulfillment. I have loved building relationships with the kids by helping them with problems and answering any questions they may have. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will all be worth it.

The decision to become a peer minister myself was not a hard one because I had already gone through the two year program which prepares students to make the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I felt by being in religion classes with older peers aiding the class that I was truly able to connect with the material and the rest of my classmates. Part of the reason why I chose to become a teen leader was to help other students get the most out of the class. When the students have questions about the Confirmation ceremony or about the sacrament in general, I am always there to help them as much as I can. I am very glad I have had great opportunities such as this one to show me that helping others is just as important as helping yourself.

By being there for the students and helping them it gave me a sense of accomplishment and was very gratifying. In return though, the students received advice from an experienced peer and felt comfortable talking to someone who could relate to them.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. One boy in my class started attending the class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is truly “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I finally saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class.

I hope that the students get the amazing experience that I did when I went through the program.

Jenny is obviously a good writer and a thoughtful person with relevant experiences. These facts come through pretty well in this draft. But at 514 words, it’s about 40% over the school’s required word count of 300. So we went to work on it, taking out any repetitive material, and focusing on one idea. We left in two specific situations emphasizing Jenny’s main idea that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is helping people. We cut the sentences that told about emotions and focused on the details that revealed those emotions. We made sure the beginning and ending were strong. This final version is exactly 300 words:

I love building relationships with people by helping them with problems and answering their questions. Out of all my extracurricular activities, my church’s peer ministry provides the greatest sense of fulfillment by allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my classes.

One day during school last year a girl from my peer ministry class looked distressed in the hallway, so I approached her and asked what was wrong and if I could do anything to help. She told me her grandmother had passed away unexpectedly and she just needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Listening to and supporting my student in that moment made our relationship grow. Another student started attending our class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class. I kept in touch with the kids in my class throughout the summer and now that it has started back up again we are closer than ever.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. Being there for the students and helping them gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will be worth it. Serving my community by being a peer minister at my church has been a great form of service for learning, building relationships, and rediscovering what I love so much about teaching.

Helping students with college essays is one of my most gratifying activities of the school year. Students actually care about their writing. They think deeply and well and try their best to express their most important ideas. They see value in feedback, editing, and revision. The “reward” is not a grade but an intrinsically satisfying, powerful piece of writing and—hopefully–college admission.

If you’re working with younger students, plant the idea of college application essays early and often. If a student writes a piece that could morph into a college application essay, write a note saying, “This is a keeper! It could be a college essay in a couple of years!”

Your advice, stories, and input about helping students with college application essays are welcome ! And thanks to Jenny D. for permitting the use of her writing here!

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Our Creative Writing Class

Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!

When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.

Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.

The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.

As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.

The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony,,, or, a more-elaborate-than-average post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.

I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.

We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.

So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.

A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.

Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:

1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.

Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.

Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry

English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.

Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.

Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.

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Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals

What do I like best about the daily journals used by my Creative Writing students? Probably the surprises.

Each day I write on the board: “Today’s journal topic,” followed by a prompt that comes to me or that I adapt from other sources. I tend to draw the prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Susan Shaughnessy’s Walking on Alligators, our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, or from a variety of sites that I find through Googling “high school writing prompts,” “journal prompts,” “writing ideas,” or some other similar search terms.

Each journal prompt also goes on Twitter so that absent students can get the day’s prompt. A happy by-product of the tweets is that quite a few people see them, use them, and chime in with ideas. In the past, I’ve used the hashtag #journal, but that one has become sort of busy and distorted, so this semester I’m using #E307, our school’s code for the Creative Writing course. Feel free to follow along and join in!

When I write the day’s journal prompt on the board, I always add “ … or ? …” The idea is that students can use the prompt or not. I tell them that when it comes to the journal prompts, they are free to explore or ignore. Why should students be tied down to my idea when they might be more compelled to delve into their own ideas? The goal is to explore their own depths and imaginations, so it’s 100% OK with me if they never use my prompts, but at the same time, I don’t want anyone to struggle with “I don’t know what to write about.”

Sometimes it takes a minute or two for the writers to settle in, but then it becomes almost eerily quiet, with pens and pencils scratching across paper and the occasional quick flip of a page the only sounds. The air in the room seems to change as everyone, including me, focuses for ten or twelve minutes on whatever we’re writing about.

After about ten minutes, I say something like, “OK. Can we please bring that in for a landing?” All of the writers find a way to come to a stop within about a minute. This is followed by, “Does anyone have anything you’d like to read today?” On most days, several writers will share something from their journals.

When I check the journals from time to time, I always get surprises. In my most recent class, I was surprised that several students wrote poetry every day. Sometimes the poems were on the day’s suggested topic, sometimes not. I also had a couple of pairs of students who wrote to each other, trading their journals on alternate days. This resulted in some rich back-and-forth on a variety of topics with each response at least a page in length. One student wrote in red every day but never used that color on her other work. Many students wrote about their own writing projects or referenced pieces written by other students.

I’m still in the process of learning from my students’ journals, but so far I’ve learned this:
• No one is brilliant every day, but everyone shows brilliance from time to time.
• Quantity begets quality. As the semester continues, the writing gets stronger as stamina improves.
• Students will write thoughtfully and energetically when they trust the environment and feel like they have something to say. Teachers can provide motivation for both of those elements.

Over the course of this one-semester class, students write at least 75 journal entries, each at least a page in length. They use their journals to reflect, have fun, question, rant, problem-solve, and think deeply. When I read what comes out of their minds and pens, I’m always inspired to be a better, more disciplined writer.

Your thoughts and experiences with using journal in class are welcome here! Thanks.

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Tips for Helping Struggling Writers

Students struggle with writing for many reasons.  Can you offer a tip for dealing with a specific obstacle that has worked for you in helping a struggling student writer?

For example, I had a student who had no conception of what sentence means.  He thought that a sentence was whatever was on one line of a piece of paper.  So, I tried this.  As he wrote, I asked him to make his periods way-big.  Ginormously huge.  My thought was that if he took the time to make a really big period, he would also be using that time to consider why he was putting it there.  I only had this student for one semester, and he showed some progress during that time.

If you use this strategy, please let me know how it works for you.  Thanks.

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Question for Students: What Kinds of Feedback Help You?

When it comes to writing, how can your teachers best help you?  When a piece of writing is returned to you, or when teachers respond to your writing on paper or online, what kinds of feedback are the most helpful to you?

Thanks for your ideas and comments here.


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Carolyn McChesney: How to Chew Gum

Carolyn McChesney enjoys writing and playing tennis. She is an editor of her high school newspaper and hopes to travel the world someday as a journalist. While she can write most of her school papers in half an hour, it took Miss McChesney about twenty minutes to decide what to include in this three-sentence bio.

Your breath reeks.

So, naturally, you dig deep into your purse or pocket and grab that last piece of chewing gum. If you are like many high school students, you discard the wrapper on the floor and pop that minty, rubber delight into your mouth. And that’s when it begins—the squishy noise of your tongue wrestling your teeth for possession of the gum. Your tongue calls in reinforcements. Acknowledging your tongue’s request, your salivary glands fire gallons of spit into your mouth. The saliva, determined to break apart the now soggy breath-deodorizer, adds to the volume emanating from your mouth.

Meanwhile, the girl sitting in front of you whips around and glares. Her eyes are full of disgust, but you remain completely unaware of her and continue to chomp, chomp, chomp away. Now, I realize that you are not being obnoxiously loud on purpose, but you must realize that you are driving your classmates insane. Believe it or not, no one wants to listen to the lip-smacking, saliva-swishing, teeth-chomping orchestra in your mouth every time you chew on a piece of gum. I am not saying you should never chew gum ever again. Despite the atrocious, permanent damage gum inflicts upon your teeth, chewing gum has the potential to benefit multiple people at once.

I highly recommend chewing a piece of gum before you walk your date up to the front door. I also suggest checking your breath before talking to a teacher, for completely different reasons of course. Both your date and teacher will appreciate your effort to mask your severe case of halitosis, and everyone will be happy. And when everyone is happy, good things happen. A kiss goodnight on the front porch and a good grade in any class are only two examples of the many wonders of good breath. Yes my friends, a single piece of gum can help you snag the guy or girl of your dreams and get you an academic scholarship to Harvard. However, you must take caution when chewing gum because as I explained earlier, an amateur gum-chewer can drive people to almost suicidal levels of annoyance. Simply follow these steps to learn how to maximize your gum-chewing potential.

Let’s start with picking out the perfect kind of gum. Personally, I prefer Orbit, sugar-free, “wintermint” gum. The flavor is milder than Dentyne gum, which tends to burn the mouth occasionally. Each piece of Orbit gum also comes individually wrapped. This wrapper is essential in the following step: unwrapping and placement.

Individually-wrapped candies are much easier to enjoy than any other kind. When preparing to eat a piece of gum, you must never discard the wrapper. Do not pinch the paper between your fingers or wad it into a ball and toss it on the ground. The custodians at Fremd work hard enough, and they do not need your gum wrapper clogging the vacuums. As I said before, try to stick with individually wrapped gums, such as Orbit or any product that is proudly stamped “Wrigley’s.” Other types of gum, such as Dentyne, are packed in plastic and foil contraptions that make an irritatingly loud noise in a silent classroom. Also, individual wrappers become quite handy when that “long-lasting” flavor disappears about ten minutes later. When placing the gum in your mouth, do just that. Place the gum on your tongue. Do not bite it in half or allow your fingers to fondle it. Just eat it. Then, gently slide the empty wrapper into your pocket for easy access in the future.

This next step is crucial to the enjoyment of gum in general. The instructions are easy. With the piece of gum in your mouth, begin to chew. That’s it. Simple enough, isn’t it? But wait just one second. In all my years of gum chewing analysis, I have noticed that the majority of gum-chewers lack the ability to chew correctly. When chewing gum, it is imperative that you savor the flavor. Repeat this to yourself. “Savor the flavor.” In order to “savor the flavor” to its maximum extent, your mouth, nose, and brain must form a strong alliance. The mouth must alert the brain when a piece of gum has entered its perimeters. In response, the brain must command the lips to remain locked at all times during which the gum resides in the mouth. A sealed mouth prevents the flavor from escaping and keeps any chewing noises to a pleasant minimum. However, the nose must recognize that the mouth is sacrificing its ability to breath. This means the nose must accept all inhalation and exhalation duties. (WARNING: Gum should not be chewed if the chewer has a cold. A stuffy nose cannot function properly, and insufficient amounts of oxygen can lead to dizziness, fainting, or death. And how embarrassing would it be to have “Faulty Gum-Chewing Techniques” written in your obituary under “Cause(s) of Death”?)

Now that you are an expert regarding how to unwrap, properly place, and chew a piece of gum, there is only one step left in the gum-enjoying process: removal. Discarding gum can be tricky. Should you spit the little slime ball into your hand and transport it to the wastebasket? Or should you mold it ever so artistically to the underside of your desk? Perhaps you should nestle it gently among the long locks of the most obnoxious girl in class, who just so happens to sit in front of you. Heck, at this point, you probably just want to swallow the soggy piece of silly putty and be done with it. However, I highly advise you to pass the former options and approach the removal of the gum in a much more civilized manner. Remember that wrapper you slipped into your pocket earlier? Well, it’s time to whip it out! Now aren’t you glad you chose Orbit over Dentyne? You cannot reuse the space your gum came from in a Dentyne Ice container. Believe me. I’ve tried. And if you attempt to cram that slimy piece of gum back into the centimeter-wide slot from which it came, you will have the worst mess imaginable on your hands. Literally. However, I realize some people simply lack the capacity to follow directions and will either have discarded the individual wrapper of the recommended Orbit gum or have purchased a pack of Dentyne gum instead. Luckily, you can find a soft, white, some times scented, and other times moisturized fabric in most classrooms here at our school. Behold the Kleenex. Spit your tasteless gum into the tissue and throw it away. If you are in a classroom that does not provide tissues, you have two choices. You can either file a complaint to the teacher, which may compel him or her to offer extra credit if you bring in a box of tissues for the classroom. Or you can bend over and allow the gum to drop from your mouth into the waste bin. Do not spit. Spitting is unappetizing and vulgar. You may, depending on the size and weight of the wastebasket, lift the bin off of the ground, in order to increase your chances of successfully transferring the gum from your mouth to the garbage without any interaction from the floor.

Following these simple steps will make your gum-chewing experiences much more enjoyable for all. However, some of you may be intimidated by the numerous details that accompany each step. Keep in mind that every detail and description is important. Do not omit any step in the gum-chewing process. If my suggestions are simply too cumbersome for you to handle, allow me to leave you with two final words of advice: Try mints.


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Angela Zade: My Slide

Angela Zade aspires to become the world’s first paid daydreamer. She enjoys reading, writing and dancing. Miss Zade also has a bossy sweet tooth.

  Stomping my small, purple boots through the elegant gown of white snow, I yanked my plastic, red sled with every eager step. Once I spotted the highest hill in sight, I turned around to tell my younger sister where I was headed.

My sister, Dee, had little, first-grade legs and couldn’t tread the thick ground to keep up. I squinted closely at her face from my distance. She looked like a cherry! Her cheeks were all plushed and her nose poked out like a tiny radish.

“Come on, Dee,” I called to hurry her.

“You aw wunning too fast!” she shouted back.

I stood in my fluffy, purple snowpants and adjusted my fat hat. I was so anxious to go sledding that once I saw Dee safely skipping behind in her small, pink suit, I rushed off into the white horizon.

My heart twirled like a tornado as I pushed my path up the hill. As a child, I surely thought the slope was like a mountain in size. I became so excited that my heavy breathing let some high-pitch shrieks out. Some snowflakes landed on my brown eyelashes as I blinked at the short distance left until I was on top of the world. I forgot about waiting for Dee and I didn’t care where she was because I was busy planning exaggerations to tell my girlfriends in my third grade class.

Like a stumpy balloon of purple padding I looked down at the treacherous slant. I positioned the red sled on the edge of heaven. I saddled up and gripped the two, black plastic hand strips. I sat there for a few minutes just staring into the deadly field. There were no trees in my way to worry about. I couldn’t find Dee anywhere in her pink snowsuit down on Earth. I didn’t care, I was ready to go! My heart felt like it was popping out of my jacket with every beat, so on one quick breath, I jerked my icy rear end forward and started to slide!

At first I began whining my girlish pout. The winter air punched my face and clogged my lungs. My mouth hung open from shock. The speed of my sled had picked up so fast that I stopped pouting. My eyes teared up because the force of the wind tore at their sensitivity. I tried to inhale bits of winter freshness through my numb nostrils but that was tough too. I flexed all my mini arm muscles to remain steady on the sled and I held to the black strips tightly.

Still sliding, I closed my eyes because the intensity was just too scary. I felt the planet flying away beneath me! I soared over the ground. I could hear the sound of my plastic sled skimming the snowy surface of the hill. Then I began hearing other people scream from around the distance.

“What are they yelling at?” I thought, “I must look so cool going so fast.”

I opened my wet eyes to see the people praise my slide and …SMACK!

Lying on my back with my arms and legs sprawled out like a spider, I sat up. I knew I wasn’t on my sled anymore because water was seeping in through the seams of my padding so I quickly shuffled my boots to the ground and stood. My body ached from the collision. I felt like one big bruise.

I noticed a red dot about ten feet over which I assumed was my sled. I sighed and put my mittens on my hips, scanning for the enemy that I had hit. I also noticed a pink bundle hunched over crying. I found Dee.

I pranced as fast as my purple, tree-stump legs would move. I plopped into the snowy cushion beside her and asked if she was okay.

“My butt huwts. You hit me hawd,” she cried.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“I wanna go home,” Dee said when she got up. She was so little, barely reaching three feet but her face was certainly powerful. Still kneeling, I looked up at her angry expression.

Despite my craving to sled all day, I didn’t bother opposing the little authoritarian. Instead I moseyed over to my sled, grabbed the pull string and began the sad trek home. This time I stomped behind Dee.

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Rachel Giese: A Lesson Learned

Rachel has loved exploring languages and literature from a very young age. She spent her young years writing stories instead of coloring and painting. Rachel is continuing her exploration of the “spoken word” as she heads off the college to study the Spanish language and possibly onto teaching or more writing expeditions. Rachel grew up in northern Minnesota with her parents, Marty and Marcia, her two older sisters, Anna and Sarah, and with her younger brother, David. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, going for a jog, and experiencing the gifts of life.

  The breeze through the trees soothes. The sun reflecting off the subtle movements of the lake as it’s pushed by the breeze make a happy sparkle show for my eyes. The trees grow together as if they were a natural blanket protecting all who pass underneath them. The grass has grown so naturally long that it becomes a soft tangled carpet for the feet of those who walk through it. And as I watch the leaves I am overcome with a feeling so strong that I must sit. I must sit, watch, and learn from the leaves. I must learn about acceptance.

Bright colors fly all around. The leaves have spent all spring and summer living on their tree, with those who are like them: their own kind. They have spent their lives watching the sparkle show on the lake, dancing in the breeze together, and watching over all those who pass underneath them. They have watched each other grow; they have lived through the rainy nights and have been there with each other to enjoy the sweet scent of the forest the next morning. But what is truly admirable about the leaves is what happens when it’s time to fall. They don’t know when it’s time; they don’t know when the breeze will carry them to a new place. They don’t know when they will no longer be able to hold on and must float away forever.

And where do they fall? No one knows but the wind. A leaf cannot choose where the wind will lead. It cannot choose where it will live apart from its family and soon die. It cannot choose, but it does not complain.

When the leaves come to their place of rest, a wonderful thing happens. Beauty happens. There is not a certain place where all the green leaves lay; there is not an area where the yellow leaves fall or where the red leaves come to rest. They fall together and dwell among leaves of a different color, from a different tree. This is how it’s been for centuries. No one has told the leaves that it is wrong to dwell with those of a different color, from a different tree. Those leaves have not heard, yet, that they are supposed to fall and remain with their own kind. No one has told them these things because no one wants to ruin the beauty. No person would go into the forest and separate the red from the green leaves or the green from the yellow. Who would dare injure the rainbow of diversity? It is beautiful; it is what makes the forest come alive.

This is acceptance.

The forest is not color blind. There would be no reason for the leaves to dress up in the fall if the trunks of the trees could not see their brilliance. It would be pointless for the moisture in the air to paint a colorful rainbow in the sky if the forest could not see. No, the forest is not color blind. The forest can see the mixing of the different colors and it sees this as beautiful. It is beautiful because it is right!

At some point in time, the world changed its view. At some point, it became wrong to have one color dwell with a different color. At some point, someone said that the rainbow of diversity was no longer a beautiful thing, but a bad thing. Someone changed the ways of the world, but the forest remained the same. Even with its ever-shifting seasons, the forest has kept its way of life since the beginning of time.

If I start to question what is right and what is wrong in this world, I will consult the forest. I will take a walk on the soft tangled grass carpet, under the protective covering of the tree branches, past the brilliant sparkle show, and I will look down and see the ground full of leaves of different colors lying all together, and I will learn my lesson. I need to live as the leaves live.

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Kim Swansen: Striving for the Perfect Paper

Kim Swansen enjoys playing guitar, traveling and playing with pet newts, Vinchi and Hendrix.  In twenty years, she sees herself as a rock star, or else fat and married with fifteen kids.

She sits…at the computer, staring at the screen for hours, waiting. And she wonders why her eyesight is taking a turn for the worse. She’s not quite sure why this is taking so particularly long. “It’s only a school assignment, right?” No, this seems to be more than that. It usually is. And suddenly, like a tidal wave starting in her brain, she starts typing. A paragraph, maybe two. Satisfied and content, she begins to reread her surge of writing. As she rereads, the smile disappears and frustration grows inside. She deletes it without a second glance, hoping the next wave will produce something more worthwhile. She sits again but becomes hungry. She knows it is a self-induced feeling, and that it’s just an excuse to get up. But she gets up anyway, makes the short but relaxing walk to the kitchen. She opens up every cabinet like she does every time (knowing there is nothing in there she wants to eat), closes the cabinets one by one, and starts the walk back. The second she steps into the computer room, she feels that dreadful feeling creep up through her spine to her brain, knowing it’s time to “really start working,” and she sits, and waits some more.

I guess now it is pretty evident that I have a writing dilemma. It is so serious that I can’t be content with the paragraph above, the line before, or even the words I’m writing this moment. Am I too critical? Too picky? Do I just want to impress my teachers or do I do it for myself? I have come to realize, through many nights at the computer, that writing for me is a never-ending process of striving for self-satisfaction but always ending up a few steps short.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to share my work with an audience because I am too critical of myself and don’t approve of what I write most of the time. It is so hard for me to promote something that I am not satisfied with. It’s like, “Hey, I think this is terrible, but don’t mind me, make your own judgments. I’ll just sit here and fear your reaction.” I wonder if famous writers ever had a problem sharing their work with others. What if Shakespeare or Woody Allen (not likely) were afraid of others’ reactions? We would have never been exposed to their art. I am trying to be more open about it, trying to be less afraid of “critics.” Besides, this paper is not going to be like -God forbid- read in class; it’s not going to be published in a book, or even read by anyone but my teacher. So what do I have to worry about?

For some reason, I take writing very seriously and love to do it. When a teacher assigns a paper or an essay, I dread knowing the process at the computer will start again, yet I am excited. As a matter of fact, I love to write. That is the insane part. I love to write and I dread it. Maybe writing to me is a combination of love and dread. Maybe the feeling of dread is part of the excitement. In any case, if I didn’t have such a problem, maybe writing for me would be different. It could be a very simple process. Sit down, type, reread, smile, print, reread again, let mom read, read to dog, let whole world read, and be satisfied. If Ernest Hemingway or Ralph Waldo Emerson were here to tell me that I have potential or good writing skills or something like that, maybe writing would be a breeze for me. I’d have more confidence and satisfaction with what I wrote. Because that’s how I am. I need others’ approval. But I can’t get that without sharing my writing. Therefore, I am stuck between love and dread, striving for the perfect paper.

Posted in Writings by Students Tagged , , , , , ,

Andrea Olsen: One-Hundred-Forty-Two Junes

Andrea Olsen is an English teacher at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.  Thanks, Andrea, for this contribution. 

Each time I stepped on grandpa’s farm, my veins pushed through the bottoms of my feet, entangled with the oak roots, and together we would weave ourselves into the dark, timber soil. There was magic to the place. When I stood on the land, with the blood of my veins woven through the dirt, I heard four generations of my family whisper through crisp, white sky, through maple leaves, through my hair and into my heart. Anchored between their spirits and their land, I knew that I would always belong there. But then grandpa died. We buried him on a Halloween wild with wind and bitterness; still the earth opened up for him like it did for fifty Junes of farming. Leon Griesemer was the last of four Griesemer men who would open the earth and whose body the earth would swallow. Today he sleeps where he was happiest, and a new tenant occupies his house, caring little for the landscape that grew over one-hundred-forty-two years. All the magic of the farm has been destroyed. Gone is the Eastern White Pine wide enough for camping under on sticky August nights. The apple tree my cousins and I used to climb in order to be as tall as the ivy-bearded silo is a stump. Dry dirt and brittle branches are reminders of the dense bush that used to sit like a happy Buddha along the front porch. Forty acres of reliable, corn-yielding prairie are in the process of being split up and sold to people who may want to build on the land instead of plow it.

When I see the farm now, my toes squirm for a place to dig into. Feeling much of my life like a displaced mishmash of American suburbanite, living in a new house in a neighborhood of other new houses, that land was the closest thing I had to feeling rooted. At grandpa’s farm I could see my life beyond me; the farm was a place where I could envision four generations of my family tilling seed, raising ivory Percheron Stallions, and laughing together at the table in a time when family and land were everything that mattered. In Schaumburg, the concrete town of 75,000 where I was raised, there was never a place to dig into, to feel roots. So I cherish the pictures and sounds of the farm’s history that I envision, but now that the farm’s landscape is barely recognizable, the images of my history are harder to hold on to. As months pass, my memories and imaginings from the farm become like the tiny, yellow butterflies that used to die on grandpa’s porch and whose wings would break up and disintegrate between the weight of my clumsy fingers. No matter how hard I would try to be gentle with them and to preserve the vibrancy of their delicate beauty, the butterflies refused to stay whole when disturbed. I fear that in losing the landscape I will lose pieces of myself.

But before there were pieces of me to lose there was dirt and the landscape of trees and fields that belonged to grandpa for each of his eighty-four years, and to great and great-great and great-great-great grandpas Adam, Charlie, and Lee. And, like them, the landscape of my history includes a farmhouse, a barn, a silo, and a weepy white pine. Land, of course, does not sprout silos, so in order to build the landscape I call my own, I have to return to when Barbara Luley and Adamus Griesemer emigrated from Bobenthal Germany. The pair married on October 23, 1849, and in March of 1868, they bought ninety acres of land west of Bloomington, Illinois. I like to imagine Adam: He is standing at the center of his ninety acres, facing the eastern sun then turning counter-clockwise to face north, south, and west, facing nothingness and home. The flat earth meets the forever shock of white sky up ahead. A man and his family cannot live on empty land, so Adam picks up his hammer and begins building, his hands bloodied and blistered under clear April air. One month after the house and barn are topped with roofs, Adam picks up his plow and turns soil, then after the seed corn and soybeans are sown, he uses June to cultivate and weed. Many seasons later, when Adam is tired from turning the dirt of forty-eight Junes, he lies down on his skeletal mattress one September night and gives himself to God. He would not see the harvest of that October. This is how I imagine my story began; this is the start of my place.

After Adam died, his son Charlie cared for the land, and besides farming, Charlie worked as a wood whittler, photographer, and concrete constructor. “Concrete Charlie” added to the landscape a garage east of the house, a washhouse with a cellar, and a small shed; all of these additions were made from Charlie’s hefty concrete bricks. When it was time for Charlie to go into the earth, his son Lee inherited every odd thing his father left behind, and my grandpa inherited the rest from Lee. My grandpa admired his grandfather Charlie, but I do not imagine that it was in Charlie’s buildings – the garage or the washhouse – that grandpa dug his roots. What mattered to grandpa were the fields. It was on those fields that grandpa spent half of his life, working and hoping for good harvest; farmers do not have faith in buildings. Farmers have faith in the earth.

I doubt that I will ever know what it means to pray to the June sky for rain. My survival will never depend on the rhythm of the seasons. I will never turn the dirt, but my rootedness still includes the landscape of the Griesemer Homestead because each acre, rich with adventure, forms the foundation of my memories. And even though I can still walk the farm grounds and see that the buildings still stand, my memories are breaking up because they were most rooted in the vegetation that as early as two years ago guarded the house like warrior angels, daring people and nature to change things. For my mom the considerable blow taken to the oak is most devastating. For me, it’s the pine. When I visited the farm five months after grandpa followed Adam, Charlie, and Lee into the ground, the piece of sky that the pine once occupied was bare. I drove the gravel road leading to the house, and because that was the tree that stood at the end of the drive, it was the first change I recognized. I always parked beside the tree’s wide, weepy branches, and because it was taller than the house and as broad as two pickups, the farm felt empty again. It felt like the century and a half spent building the landscape, building my family, had been erased. I sank. Within the passing a single season, I had lost the grandfather whose accordion music and laughter delighted babies, strong men, and me. Then, the only landscape with which I identified, the magic place whose soil sucked down my veins and rooted me there, had died too.

When we involuntarily lose bits of ourselves, we grieve. I grieve by investigating what I’ve lost. So, not long ago, with the sun starring in the open sky, I kneeled in the band of dust that encircles what’s left of my pine, and I counted rings. One-hundred-ten rings wind around the crown of the stumpy trunk. Prostrated over the stoop with eyes shut tight, I grieved the loss of my youth. When the August corn in grandpa’s fields had grown two feet above my head, I used to sit under the pine tree and listen to a silence like I never heard in Schaumburg. I took in bottomless breaths of the wild dirt that our suburban pavement suffocates. Sitting under that tree, my bare legs crossed out in front of me and the fallen brown needles pressing into the backs of my thighs and imprinting the palms of my hands, I became closer to being myself than I could be anyplace else. I could breathe. I was home. The small pools of sun that sprinkled through open patches of sparse, sagging bottom branches were the glimmers of reassurance that reminded me, “This is where you are from. This is where you belong.” When the nights were too hot for tents, my cousins and I would sleep under the tree, our ten naked feet peeking out from under disheveled blankets at the ends of its heavy arms. All of us fit from one end of the pine to the other when we huddled together and slept side by side. In the morning, Leland made his famous flapjacks under the apple tree. And we laughed. We laughed about nothing in particular until bits of flapjack batter were flying from our noses and mouths. We were smelly and sweaty from the heavy, humid air, but we were so happy.

The pine is gone, and what is gone takes time to restore; another pine as stately as what’s lost will take another century to rise. As our acreage is sold, my family hopes to be diligent in surrendering the land to another farmer who will work the fields because once planted, concrete takes too long to crumble. I understand that time moves forward and people move too, but there is a sacred splendor in belonging to a place and in knowing that for one-hundred-forty-two Junes the people whose lives made my life possible dug their cultivators deep into row after narrow row of the same land. No matter what places I occupy in my life, grandpa’s farm will always be the one place whose soil my feet and veins and heart can dig into. I have difficulty reconciling the places where I’m from with the places where I’m going.

When I was little, my mom told me that we were going to visit “Grandpa on the Farm” because it was an easy way to distinguish the difference between my two grandfathers. The title stuck, and grandpa was, is, and will always be “Grandpa on the Farm.” You don’t separate grandpa from the farm. Grandpa is the farm, and I am part of grandpa. I am part of Lee and Marzella, Charlie and Ida, and Barbara and Adam, who started my story. I try to hold on to the memories and images of my story by closing my eyes. When I do, I see four women walking through a field, walking through time, with glasses of skimmed milk and shavings of skinned chickens for their husbands pushing plows then riding tractors. Barefooted, the women cook dinner over wood burning then gas stoves and sprout milk from their heavy, ivory breasts into the soft, pink mouths of happy babies. I see Adam’s blistered hands and I watch little Lee pump water by the white pine into a metal pail under the thick, August sky, his canvas trousers rolled up and his ruffled shirt collar bouncing as he pumps. I see grandpa. He is standing in the front yard, next to our Eastern White Pine, smiling big like he did better than anyone. He is wearing a green John Deere cap, navy Dickie’s, and black Velcro K-Mart shoes. There’s a pipe tucked in his flannel shirt pocket, he smells like cherry tobacco, and he’s waving, laughing out the word “Howdy!” Through time and in the farm’s changing landscape, these images will break up like brittle butterfly wings in my brain, but, like today, at least I have words to help keep them alive.

Posted in Writings by Teachers Tagged , , , ,

Zapping Apathy with Chat-Based Test Review

One of the year-end rituals with debatable value is final exams. At our school, most classes are required to end with a 90-minute final exam that comprehensively tests a semester’s worth of curriculum. This test is to be preceded by some kind of meaningful review.

I’m not a big fan of those tests or the reviews. Some teachers hand out massive review packets that students labor over for several days before the test. Maybe that works. I’m not judging, but it seems to me that if you can teach the whole class from a single packet in a few days, why not do that at the beginning instead of the end, and then move on to some kind of individualized learning projects for the rest of the semester?

My own approach is to post the essay questions online at the beginning of the semester so that students know exactly what’s coming and their thoughts can sort of incubate as the semester goes along. My review sessions sort of go like this: “OK. Does anyone have any questions about the final exam material?” As exam day draws closer, the questions become more specific, and I can see that the students are preparing, connecting ideas, considering organizational plans, and talking things over with each other.

Which brings me to what happened this week. In our American Studies class, our Ning provides a lot of resources and learning possibilities. One of the features that I don’t use very often is chat. I’m concerned that if I just left it on 24/7 it would be abused. My students are pretty solid, but I’m not comfortable with leaving a chat window wide open around the clock, so I don’t.

On the two evenings before our final exam, however, I opened up the chat, and good things happened. On the first night 9 or 10 students (out of 52) popped in and out. They asked some questions. I answered them, although they also answered questions for each other if I was away from the computer for a bit.

On the second night—Final Exam Eve—about half the class participated in a rich, flowing review session that was more satisfying than any in-class discussion we had all year! Joshua said he was having trouble thinking of a third example for his essay. Katie gave him an idea. I’ve never seen Joshua and Katie exchange a word to each other in class, but online they were learning together. Mike asked a question about how to organize his essay. Scott and Sam threw in their advice. Sara asked me to explain a phrase that I’d used in class a few times—“Individual Liberty vs. Preservation of Order.” I explained it, giving a few examples, and then a different Sara chimed in with another perfect example. At one point I said, “”Why do I have the feeling that our class would be different if we met at 10:00 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning?”

As the two-hour session continued, Sam and Kyle started teasing each a little bit, which I watched carefully, but I didn’t mind too much as they included our Greek roots-based vocabulary words in their gentle barbs: “Sam, I don’t understand you. Your language is too esoteric!” “Oh, my antipathy is boiling over!” “I’m LOL-ing so hard I’m afraid my endocrine gland is gonna burst!”

At about 10:30 p.m., I gave fair warning that I would be ending the chat and removing it from the Ning at 11:00 p.m. Immediately, students started organizing a way to move the chat to Facebook. They talked about who would set it up, which happened in a flash, and how to invite everybody in. At 11:05, I asked if anyone had last-minute questions for me. A few students said thanks, and then I removed the chat feature and went to bed.

The next morning the test session began at 7:30 a.m. The chat participants didn’t seem particularly sleep-deprived. On the contrary, they seemed energized. Mike said, “That Ning chat was awesome.” Kim, who hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything all year, actually threw her fist in the year and yelled, “Woo, Ning chat!”

As it turns out, the students created the “American Studies Chat after 11:00” group on Facebook, complete with an avatar photo of my teaching partner and I recreating the famous 1890 Burnham and Root photo in The Rookery. They continued chatting there for another hour or so, and although I haven’t seen a transcript, they told me it continued in the same vein as the Ning chat that I was monitoring. (They posted a few ideas in the Group that were mostly funny, but most of the productive conversation happened through live messaging, they tell me.)

So what did I learn from this? First of all, students who are reluctant to participate in class can thrive in an online discussion. Second, online activities can be productive, good-natured, and valuable. (One of my colleagues the next morning poo-pooed the idea of an online test review as “a waste of time.” Um, not really.) Third, online activities can increase a sense of community as students interact with each other in ways that may not happen in a classroom. Finally, learning occurred because of the technology involved. If we had not conducted this chat-based test review, those students probably would not have communicated with each other or with me in the same way, and their learning would not have been enriched by that communication.

In the future, I’m looking for ways to use live, chat-based sessions for other learning opportunities. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d appreciate suggestions, success stories, and reactions. Thanks.

Posted in General Tagged , , , , ,

Teachers, tell us about how you manage feedback.

What’s your best advice for managing feedback on student writing? How can teachers make feedback effective, useful, personal … and still do it in a timely manner? Thanks.

Posted in Discussions for Teachers

Tell us about your inspirations.

Tell about what has helped you become a better writer. Did you have a particularly influential teacher? What kinds of class activities were useful to you?

Posted in Discussions for Students

The Brave Faces

My heart is with kids who say to themselves:

• I try but I still fail, and I don’t know why.
• If someone in my family doesn’t get a job soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
• I don’t like to read. I know most of the words but they don’t connect.
• My teacher has favorites. I’m not one of them.
• I go to a school with thousands of students and hundreds of grown-ups but no one talks to me.
• My parents check my grades every day and always find something to complain about even when my grades are all good.
• My friends are bad influences but I don’t know what to do about it.
• I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. Am I normal?
• I’d like to go to prom but we can’t afford it.
• My classes don’t teach me anything I need to know.
• I try to be friendly but people act like I’m not there.
• If my parent goes to prison, I’m not sure what will happen to my family.
• I’m angry and afraid I’m going to hurt somebody.
• I don’t have a computer at home so I can’t do certain homework like other kids.
• My teacher doesn’t like me and I don’t know why.
• I’d like to have friends but I don’t know how.
• I don’t understand math the way other kids do.
• Everybody tells me to take advanced classes but they’re so hard that it’s ruining my life.
• I don’t see where I fit in at school.
• When my teacher calls on me I’m afraid to answer in case I’m wrong, so I always say, “I don’t know.”
• I think I’m depressed but I don’t know what to do about it.
• My boyfriend hits me.
• My mom hits me.
• My dad hits me.
• I’m going to graduate but I know I’m not ready for college.
• There are people in my school who scare me.

Those of us who work in schools are surrounded by brave faces suffering in silence. Today’s challenge: Say, “Hello. How are you doing?” We might get an answer; we might not. Either way, a simple exchange like that can do more than the words convey as we let students know they are not alone and not invisible.

We can’t solve all the problems, but we can smile and say, “Hello.”


Posted in General Tagged , , , ,

Surprise! Students Read!

Our school has a huge number of students with very active reading lives! I thought that most students only read books when they were required to do so for school, and a certain amount of that reading was “enhanced” by SparkNotes. It’s not true. We have many, many, many, many students who enjoy reading, talking to each other about books, and hunting for their next good book to read.

Why did I have this misconception? Several years ago we had a school-wide “silent sustained reading (SSR)” program. It died a miserable, ugly death. Many students and teachers looked for ways to not do the program. This year, several teachers have introduced SSR dimensions to their individual classes, and in every case, it’s working extremely well. Students who have never read books are doing it and finding it rewarding.

It’s no big secret that our school’s English Department and numerous other school personnel read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. That books explains how schools are killing a love of reading in four specific ways:

– Focusing on test preparation skills at the expense of reading instruction

– Overteaching books and sucking all of the life and joy out of them

– Assigning books that are irrelevant and too difficult for the students

– Not providing authentic reading experiences

I’m guilty of all of the above, but my eyes are open now. I’ll do better.

Another book has also influenced my thinking about students’ reading habits: Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Miller is a sixth-grade teacher in Texas whose students read at least forty books a year and consistently exceed state standards in reading. Her students all do the same assignments, but they never read the same books. Her approach is highly successful in developing lifelong readers. Sixth grade and high school have obvious differences, but Donalyn Miller is on to something, and her ideas deserve consideration at the high school level.

I’m also inspired by Daniel Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader”:

1. The right to not read.

2. The right to skip pages.

3. The right to not finish.

4. The right to reread.

5. The right to read anything.

6. The right to escapism.

7. The right to read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.

9. The right to read out loud.

10. The right not to defend your tastes.

If we can somehow find ways to encourage students to exercise these rights, we will take huge steps in developing a culture of readers in our school.

So, to all of you readers, congratulations. You’re doing yourself a huge favor by finding time to read, reflect, and talk about books. You don’t have to be underground about it. There are a lot of you. If some people think you’re wasting your time, it says more about them than it does about you. Keep going.

If you’re a student who hasn’t yet found the book that lights your fire, let’s see what we can do about that. It’s not too late. We’ll gladly help you find a book that suits your tastes. Take a look at for some suggestions. Talk to your school or public librarian.  They exist to help you find books.

For any parents who happen to be reading this: Please help your sons and daughters get books in their hands that they will enjoy.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

Posted in General Tagged , ,

Writers on Writing

Some of the most important writers of our time have gone on camera to talk about their craft and give advice on how to think about writing.  Here are some of the best…

“1. Keep your hand moving. When you sit down to write, whether it’s for ten minutes or an hour, once you begin, don’t stop. If an atom bomb drops at your feet eight minutes after you have begun and you were going to write for ten minutes, don’t budge. You’ll go out writing.…

2.  Lose control. Say what you want to say. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip.…

3.  Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette.”

—Natalie Goldberg


“ A good device to remember is the fishhook. It rises slowly and then hooks back, so it will dig in and stick. It is barbed. Its curve points back to its beginning, to remind itself and the reader where it came from.

Many professionals employ the Hook in their writing: They begin with a word, action, or symbol and at the end of their article or story come back to it. All that has intervened between the first and second mention makes its second appearance more exciting or significant than its first.”

—Ken Macrorie


“ When we have spent enough years on earth and gained knowledge of the longing that exist within us and in the hearts of others, we may finally understand that if there is anything truer than truth, it is the legend with which we frail mortals embellish that truth.”

—Robert Phillips


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